During 2008, my wife and I are tracking how much time and money we spend growing food. This is the report for September.

September generally brings the largest harvests for our garden. That was true again this year, but not by as much as we hoped. The bad weather at the beginning of the season means that things just aren’t ripe yet. Kris has been encouraging her tomatoes for weeks. I’m dying for the grapes to be ready. (They’re almost there!)

Kris gives orders to her garden elves. Photo by Lisa.

We did harvest a lot last month, the bulk of which was tomatoes and tree fruit. We had so many tomatoes, in fact, that Kris was able to enlist the help of five-year-olds Albert and Annika to help harvest. They did an amazing job picking cherry tomatoes.

Like investing in fruit
September’s nice because there’s almost no garden maintenance. All we have to do is stroll out to pick the food we want. During the middle of the month, Kris and I had a mild misunderstanding. I thought she told me to go pick all of the apples from our trees, but she really told me to pick a few for some jam. I came back into the house with 19 pounds of apples, which was far more than she needed. We made an spontaneous batch of applesauce.

Actually, Kris did a lot of canning this month: marinara sauce, applesauce, salsa, pickled plums, and more. As usual, we supplemented our own harvest with free food from friends and neighbors (25 pound of pears here, 15 pounds of plums there), as well as things like onions and garlic from the produce stand.

Now, as the rains begin and the harvest draws to a close, our pantry and freezer are both packed full. When we make a blackberry cobbler in February, take pickled “dilly beans” to a potluck or pop open a jar of spicy salsa on a chilly afternoon, we’ll be extending the benefits of our garden year-round. Our home-canned goods will help defray food costs over the next eight months until we can expect another strawberry crop to kick off 2009′s garden bounty.

The fruits of our labor
Our total harvest in September yielded $152.75 in produce, largely from tomatoes. Here’s the complete tally for this month’s garden production.

  • about 3 pints elderberries, for which I still have no value
  • 1.95 pounds (0.886 kg, or 2.95 pints) caneberries (blackberries, boysenberries, and marionberries) @ $2.49/pint (~300g) = $7.35
  • 2.82 pounds (1.276 kg) Italian plums @ $1.49/pound = $4.20
  • 5.64 pounds (2.560 kg) pears @ $0.99/pound = $5.58
  • 26.52 pounds (12.038 kg) apples @ $0.99/pound = $26.25
  • 6 Anaheim chili peppers @ $0.30/each = $1.80
  • 3 zucchini @ $0.49/each = $1.47
  • 1 cucumbers @ $0.49/each = $0.49
  • 4 measly ears of corn @ $0.50/each = $2.00
  • 692 grams of Interlaken seedless grapes, which would sell for about $3 at the local farmers market
  • 6.50 pounds (2.951 kg or nearly 10 pints) cherry tomatoes @ $2.49/pint = $24.49
  • 51.09 pounds (23.195 kg) tomatoes @ 1.49/pound = $76.12

Note: For the purposes of this project, we’re using “best match” pricing. Based on GRS reader suggestions, we’re obtaining typical pricing from our local farmers market. In some cases, we use pricing from a local organic produce stand. In all cases, we’re trying to be fair, but this is more art than science.

A little bit of whining
I’ll be honest. I’m a little disappointed. Once it became clear that this garden was going to “make money”, I wanted it to kick ass. It hasn’t done that. Don’t get me wrong — we love having fresh produce outside our front door, and we enjoy the work with the plants, but I was hoping for more.

I think there are a few ways we can improve.

  • For one, we can focus on plants that are more productive in our climate. (Look for a complete exploration of this topic in December or January.)
  • For another, we can begin refining our gardening methods to emphasize frugality. As I noted at the start, we haven’t altered any of our normal habits for this project. In the future, it might be worth doing so.
  • Finally, we can have better weather. Oregon’s Willamette Valley had a short summer this year. The rainy grey skies lingered an extra month, and now they seem to have arrived two weeks early. That loss of six weeks (and especially those first four weeks) has a huge impact. That means our tomato harvest is stunted, and that we only had four ears of corn come to maturity.

This year, we initially made a large financial outlay for two types of organic pest traps for the apple trees. They proved successful; our apples were practically worm-free! As the two trees mature and bear larger crops, the number and value of the apples will increase as the cost of the traps will drop (because some parts are reusable from year-to-year).

I almost want to repeat this entire project next year to see if we can spend less and harvest more! (Maybe we’ll do it behind the scenes, providing totals at the end of the summer.)

We spent nothing on the garden this month, and very little time. It doesn’t take long to harvest 19 pounds of apples or five pounds of tomatoes. September is the closest our garden will ever come to “pure profit”.

Month Time Cost Harvest
January 4.0 hours $27.30
February 2.5 hours
March 3.5 hours $130.00
April 5.5 hours $28.51
May 5.5 hours $110.89
June 7.0 hours $0.79 $50.83
July 11.0 hours $20.94 $123.68
August 8.0 hours $123.94
September 2.0 hours $152.75
Totals 49.0 hours $318.43 $451.20

There is still food left to harvest. Though the rains have set in, we may have more tomatoes. (There are plenty on the plants, but the cool weather is likely to prevent them from ripening.) There are potatoes left to dig, and the acorn squash is ready to pick and dry for winter storage (to be tallied in October).

Most importantly, we have grapes to pick. We only have 20 feet of young grape vines, so we won’t have many from our yard. But the neighbor has vast swaths of Concords growing wild. I wanted to pick them last weekend, but he insisted they were two weeks away. I plan to pick them next Saturday. I just hope these rains don’t ruin the flavor. (Will rain do that to grapes?) There are few things I love more than fresh Concord grapes. (Especially fresh free Concord grapes.) They make amazing grape juice and Kris wants to put up some grape jelly.

Kris has made notes on her garden plan to help her organize her seed order for next year. Only a few short months until the seed catalogs arrive! And she has begun an experiment to grow a few herbs indoors this winter. Stay tuned on whether that is worthwhile.

Final word
Just to be clear on the purpose of this project: This isn’t a formal experiment. Kris and I are long-time hobby gardeners, and we have set ways that we do things. This year, we are not trying to do anything different than we have for more than a decade. We’re not trying to be 100% organic (though we are mostly organic through our normal practices).

Nor are we trying to be 100% frugal. Instead, we’re trying to see just what our garden costs and produces based on our normal habits. We hope the results of this experiment will help us find new ways to economize and to improve our crops.

You can read about my goals for this series in The year-long GRS project: How much does a garden really save?

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